There has been a lot of sloppy talk recently among the political commentariat about “lanes,” “outsiders,” and the “Establishment” in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination. To the extent that one can distill this assumed but unexplained conventional wisdom into cogent thought, the theory appears to go like this: there are separate segments of the Republican electorate that break down according to ideology and attitude, and each presidential aspirant’s task is to clear the thicket of candidates within their respective “lane” before broadening their coalition as the field narrows. The number of lanes depends on the telling. Sometimes there are as many as four or five, with catchy labels like “Tea Party” and “evangelicals.” More often, however, the choice is binary—you’re either part of the capital “E” Establishment or an “outsider.” Either way, under this campaign framework, there are multiple paths to the nomination, as long as you’re traveling alone. As Robert Frost might say were he still alive and a panelist on Face the Nation, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and Ted Cruz chose the one not traveled by Marco Rubio in order to win a plurality of delegates on Super Tuesday.”
And to the pundits, this model has made all the difference. You can hardly turn on CNN or MSNBC these days and not hear talk about which of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, or John Kasich will emerge as the consensus Establishment candidate in New Hampshire, or the supposed brilliance of Ted Cruz’s strategy to “bear hug” Donald Trump in order to absorb Trump’s supporters when he inevitably fades (a rather apt term, I suppose, since holding Trump close must be about as appealing as embracing a grizzly). As Chuck Todd has recently taken to breathlessly exclaiming, the outsiders have swamped the Establishment! Trump, Cruz, and Ben Carson total 64.7% in the most recent Real Clear Politics national polling average; Bush, Christie, Kasich, and Rubio are at a combined 21.4%. The loons are running the asylum, and the only question now is which one will escape.
There are, however, many problems with this line of thinking. First, as alluded to above, no one can seem to decide how many lanes there are. There is the Tea Party lane, with its many confusing and often contradictory definitions. There are the libertarians—often described as Tea Partiers, themselves. Also up for grabs are moderates, sometimes called the Establishment but sometimes not. And who could forget the evangelicals, who may or may not be the same as social conservatives. Neo-cons, reformocons, disaffected whites, oh my! There is a veritable Baskin-Robbins array of conservative choices (except every flavor tastes roughly the same). Ted Cruz was quoted in late October explaining that he believed there were four lanes but “three of the lanes are collapsing into one, which is the evangelical lane, the conservative tea party lane, and the libertarian lane are all collapsing into the conservative lane and we’re seeing those lanes unify behind our campaign.” It is enough to make one’s head spin. And now a brand new lane has emerged—TRUMP Lane! What luck for the Donald; they already have a lane named after him! No doubt Trump has a commanding lead in consolidating the Trump vote—an insight that really helps us all understand the electorate.
Second, it’s entirely unclear which candidates are in which lanes. When Carly Fiorina had her brief rise in the polls this Fall, she was lumped together with the outsiders as someone who had never held elective office. Then her numbers slid, she took on Trump, and suddenly she was an Establishment alternative. Cruz is simultaneously positioning himself as a hawk and a dove, promising to find out if “sand can glow in the dark” while at the same time reaching out to foreign policy libertarians thought to be loyal to Rand Paul. Kasich is apparently considered a moderate, despite his starkly conservative record in Ohio and his status as one of the few candidates to call for U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS. Most confusingly, the media has anointed Rubio as the great Establishment hope, despite the fact that he rose to prominence as a Tea Party challenger in 2010, has consistently positioned himself on the far right of his party on abortion and gay marriage, and has universally high approval ratings among self-described conservatives. Indeed, none other than Rush Limbaugh recently referred to Rubio as anti-establishment. For his part, Rubio appears committed to straddling the line between the two. And polls have consistently shown that many Carson, Cruz, and Trump supporters view so-called Establishment choices like Rubio quite favorably.
Clearly, the well-worn lane metaphor leads nowhere. But the above two problems hint at the third and biggest wrong turn: what exactly do any of these labels actually mean? If Rubio was a “Tea Party” insurgent, and still has a foot in that camp, how can he simultaneously be competing to lead “the Establishment”? What makes Ted Cruz—a Princeton and Harvard educated former Supreme Court clerk, Washington lawyer, and Bush administration official—the ultimate outsider? What, or who, is the Establishment?
To be fair, there is a core truth to the concept of an Establishment hidden deep inside the amorphous and mindless chatter of the talking heads. Unquestionably, leaders in the Republican Party hate Ted Cruz and are vehemently opposed to nominating Donald Trump or Ben Carson. Whatever issues party members have with Rubio, Bush, Christie, or Kasich, they aren’t yet considered disqualifying. But the implication of the lazy Establishment/outsider dichotomy is that a cabal of powerful interests controlling the primary process exists and that certain candidates hold membership cards to this social and political elite. Implicit in this definition is an element of ideological cohesiveness and moderation in comparison to the party’s base. In contrast, outsiders do not belong to this exclusive club and instead must appeal to the populist voting public that rejects many of our current American institutions. Yet a cursory glance at those populating the supposed Establishment demonstrates the emptiness of these definitions. Senators Mitch McConnell and John McCain, for instance, are both universally considered part of the Establishment. Yet, the two are leading voices in opposition to one another on a host of issues. Representative Paul Ryan, once one of the fire-breathing “young guns” on the right flank of his party, is now Speaker of the House. And on the other side, the insurgent billionaire Trump, by his own admission, is as socially and culturally part of the Establishment as one gets. He’s rich, he’s been buying politicians for years, and he’s taken advantage of every tax and bankruptcy loophole in the U.S. Code. Yet he’s now considered the ultimate outsider. Clearly something else is going on.
Theodore H. White provided a more workable definition of the Establishment in his The Making of the President 1968: “Establishment is, of course, one of the most fashionable words in American politics today,” he wrote. “Establishment in the new lexicon is the synonym for any group of leaders anywhere–in the press, in the government, in business, in education, in finance, in the Senate, in the House.” This characterization is closer to the truth. Certainly being in a position of leadership tends to provide a certain perspective of presidential politics in a way that wealth, ideology, or education simply do not explain. Although White’s definition is more useful than the careless way in which the term is bandied about today, it is overbroad. Ted Cruz is a Senator; Sheldon Adelson is a wealthy businessman and leading political donor; Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are media titans, commanding millions of listeners daily. Yet no one would describe these men as part of the Establishment.
Rather, the only bold dividing line between the presidential candidates is something more precisely determined—one’s commitment to the party. Parties and candidates change over time, both in their composition and their commitment to certain issues. The clash of ideas in presidential primaries and in drafting a party platform is a healthy part of democracy and proof that America’s political parties are not static. But while a concerted effort to change the direction of one’s political party is the everyday activity of American democracy, commitment to working within the structures of the party organization has always been required. This is intuitive. Those in positions of power know that they owe their past and future success to the party. Even more importantly, however, parties provide the preexisting rules and norms within which political actors are able to predict the consequences of their actions and deal-making. Upend that structure and risk not only your career, but also the predictability that the candidates you support will implement the policy goals you favor. It is for this reason that parties are weary of presidential candidates who have never previously held elective office. Such candidates have no demonstrated track-record of subordinating their own ambitions and ideological goals when they would deeply wound the party. And it is why party leaders may fracture between two different candidates with competing faces, visions, policies, and appeals, but they will remain united against candidates who challenge their basic goals: to nominate a candidate who is both electable and committed to pursuing the broad outlines of the party’s agenda.
The history books are littered with examples. Pat Buchanan wrested the New Hampshire primary from Bob Dole in 1996, but stood no chance of nomination. Setting his nativist and socially extreme views aside, Buchanan had torn his party apart by actively challenging incumbent Republican President George H. W. Bush in the primaries just four years before. Four years later, Senator John McCain’s quixotic campaign, targeting cross-over Democrats and attacking the conservative base, attracted little party support even after he won New Hampshire. Only a rightward turn and years as a loyal foot soldier for the second President Bush allowed him to slowly consolidate party support and win the nomination in 2008. Perhaps the classic example involved one of the most serious party fissures in United States history. The rise of Senator Eugene McCarthy in 1968 was fueled by an insurgent belief that the evils of the Democratic administration’s Vietnam policy were too great to silence in service of party unity. McCarthy’s movement led to the withdrawal of President Johnson from the Democratic primary, the entry of Robert Kennedy, and the eventual moderation of the party platform’s Vietnam position. Nevertheless, the party ultimately chose Vice President Hubert Humphrey as its nominee, rejecting a complete renouncement of their own administration through advocating immediate withdrawal. Presidential candidates operating outside the party framework have had considerable and momentous influence on this country’s history. But, for the most part, to win the presidential prize, aspirants have had to follow the route most traveled—one trodden by committed party figures.
It was for this reason that the universally disliked Mitt Romney, replete with his baggage of formerly held positions well outside the party mainstream, was nonetheless never in serious doubt of leading the GOP in 2012. The rest of the field (except the politically incompetent Rick Perry, who destroyed his own campaign) was wholly uncommitted to Republican party goals outside of their own election. Rick Santorum refused to moderate his politically untenable social positions. Michelle Bachmann was a member of the Tea Party caucus committed to attacking her fellow Republican representatives for ideological apostasies. Herman Cain was a narcissistic showman with a priority of selling books and hosting a radio show. And Newt Gingrich’s many betrayals of conservative orthodoxy, grandiose visions, and arrogant elevation of self over party led to a Republican coup in the ‘90s stripping him of the Speakership, and made it totally implausible that he would attract any party support for his campaign. Romney, on the other hand, demonstrated commitment to Republican goals if nothing else. He enthusiastically endorsed and raised money for McCain after a bitter primary defeat in 2008. He relentlessly campaigned for GOP congressional candidates in the 2010 midterms. And, yes, he reversed every single one of his prior ideological beliefs—on abortion, universal healthcare, immigration, etc.—that cut against the fundamental branding of the national Republican Party as it then existed. Although certainly not ideal for the general election, Romney’s wholesale reversal on many issues was actually an indication to party members that he could be trusted.
While it is the prerogative of voters to support the candidate they trust most and the ideology they like best, it is the responsibility of parties to craft a platform and a candidate with self-preservation in mind. In many ways, then, presidential candidates are merely the attractive casing to the sausage of party politics. Romney, for all his flaws, was a broadly acceptable face with a presidential temperament willing to be stuffed with the gross amalgam of Republican party interests. It is for this reason that Jeb Bush, despite his complete dearth of political talent, remains a viable, albeit fading, potential nominee and a leader in fundraising and endorsements despite being left for dead by the media. His dependable last name, familiar agenda, and basic general competence and appeal still make for an attractive option. For the same reason, Bernie Sanders, a self-identifying socialist who has spent his career as an independent rather than a Democrat, has attracted only two endorsements from sitting Governors and members of Congress despite solid polling numbers and an issue portfolio generally within the Democratic party’s left wing.
In stark contrast to Romney and Bush, Trump and Cruz (and to a lesser extent Carson and Paul) will never go through the party sausage-grinder, either because of their unattractive casing, their unwillingness to hold the meat of the party’s interests, or both. Trump clearly fails both tests. He is a noxious mixture of policy illiteracy, white supremacy, and macho braggadocio. Meanwhile, his flirtations with a third-party run, his relentless mockery of his fellow Republicans, and his willingness to attack core party positions have made it clear he puts person above party. For his part, Cruz has become the most hated man in Washington, even among members of his own party. His 2013 government shutdown strategy and penchant for attacking fellow Republicans for being insufficiently conservative or honest (such as when he had the temerity to call his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a “liar”) engenders no belief in his commitment to congressional or state Republican office-holders should it come at his own expense. And, to a lesser extent than Trump, his sneering ultra-conservative image no doubt frightens Republican leaders about his general election prospects.
Yet, simply because the foursome of Bush, Christie, Kasich, and Rubio may be broadly acceptable to GOP leaders in a way that Trump and Cruz are not, does not mean they are ideologically similar or equally competing in some mythical “Establishment” lane. Rubio is considerably more conservative than the other three and has picked up a number of endorsements from Tea Party members of Congress who would never be described as members of the “Establishment.” Christie, while by some measures the most liberal of the four, has championed a reactionary Social Security reform plan that would slash benefits. Bush proposes legalizing many of the country’s millions of undocumented residents while endorsing a more muscular version of his brother’s tax policies. Kasich has also tacked to the center on immigration and Medicaid expansion, but has also championed conservative budget and foreign policy initiatives. In other words, there’s a mixed bag here for people of all ideological stripes within the GOP to consider.
What is far more important to the party, however, is how each of these four measure up against the tests that Trump and Cruz woefully fail. In that respect, Bush’s lethargic campaigning and uninspiring speeches reflect poorly on his ability to win a general election. The specter of scandal may temper enthusiasm for Christie. Kasich’s liberal dalliances and poor debate performances may give potential supporters pause. And party leaders may still be deciding whether Rubio’s impatient ambition and abandonment of his Senate duties mean that he’s not fully committed to the party. In other words, no candidate has yet distinguished themselves as a relatively risk-free option. One or more these candidates may yet rise or fall as Republican officials and donors gather information.
None of this is to say that the ultimate victor will be party-backed. Once in history, a candidate truly reviled by leaders in his own party won its nomination. In 1964, after Senator Barry Goldwater defeated New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the California Republican primary, party leaders descended on a Republican governors’ event in Cleveland. There, former President Dwight Eisenhower, former Vice-President Richard Nixon, and various governors such as George Romney, Mark Hatfield, and William Scranton huddled together desperate to stop the far-right Goldwater. It made no difference. Goldwater’s depth of support and superior organization held fast, and Scranton’s last-minute bid for the nomination was crushed. Time will tell whether Trump or Cruz will be able to follow this path and outlast their rivals. Although it remains unlikely, the past year has certainly raised questions about whether the old rules still apply. Whatever the answer, each of the candidates, with their differing menu of personality and policies, is in a dogged competition for each vote. There is no predetermined path toward gathering the necessary support for nomination, even if the media blindly follows itself down this lane.